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The Iron Knight, Page 24

Julie Kagawa

Page 24


  The fog here was thicker, too, muff ling all sound. Nothing seemed to move, or even breathe.

  “Nice place,” Puck muttered as we passed an old rocking chair, creaking in the wind. “Real homey. I wonder where everyone is. ”

  “They come and go,” said the rocking chair behind us. We all jumped and spun around, drawing our weapons. A strange creature with blank white eyes stared at us where nothing had been before.

  As with the giant, I didn't recognize this creature. It had the body of a shriveled old woman, but her hands were gnarled bird claws and her feet ended in hooves. Feathers stuck out of her gray hair and ran down her skinny arms, but I also saw tiny horns curling from her brow. She regarded me with a dul , tired expression, and a forked tongue f licked out to touch her lips.

  “Oh,” she said, as I took a deep, slow breath and sheathed my weapon, “newcomers. I haven't seen a new face in town for…come to think of it, I've never seen a new face. ” She paused a moment, peering at us, then brightened. “If you're new, then perhaps you've seen it. Have you seen it, by chance?” I frowned. “It?”

  “Yes. It. ”

  I felt something odd in the air around her, a faint pul ing sensation, like water being sucked through a straw. “It… what?” I asked cautiously, facing the old faery again. “What are you looking for?”

  “I don't know. ” She sighed heavily, seeming to shrink in on herself. “I don't remember. I just know I lost it. You haven't seen it, have you?”

  “No,” I told her firmly. “I haven't seen it. ”

  “Oh. ” The old creature sighed again, shrinking down a little more. “Are you sure? I thought you might have seen it. ”

  “So, anyway,” Puck broke in, before the conversation could go in another circle. “We'd love to stay and chat, but we're sort of in a hurry.

  Can you point us toward the docks?”

  The creature's tongue f licked out, as if tasting the air around Puck.

  “You're so bright,” she whispered. “Al of you are so bright. Like little suns, you are. ” Puck and I shared a glance, and started to back away.

  “Oh, don't leave,” the faery pleaded, holding out a withered claw.

  “Stay. Stay and chat a bit. It's so cold sometimes. So…cold…” She shivered and, like mist dissolving in the sunlight, faded away. An empty rocking chair, stil creaking back and forth, was the only thing left behind.

  Puck gave an exaggerated shiver and rubbed his arms. “Okay, that was probably the creepiest thing I've seen in a while,” he said with forced cheerfulness. “Who else is for finding this boat and getting the hell outta Dodge?”

  “Come on,” the Wolf growled, eager to leave as well . “I can smel the river. This way. ” Without waiting for a reply, he turned and padded down the street.

  I looked for Grimalkin, not surprised to find he had vanished as well . I hoped that didn't mean there would be trouble soon. “What do you think she was searching for?” I asked Ariel a as we continued through the silent town, fol owing the Wolf 's huge silhouette through the fog.

  “The creature on the riverbank was looking for something, too. I wonder what they lost that's so important?”

  Ariel a shivered, her expression haunted. “Their names,” she said quietly. “I think…they were searching for their names. ” She drifted off for a moment, her eyes distant and sad. I felt a twinge of alarm at how much she suddenly resembled the faery in the rocking chair. “I could feel the emptiness inside,” Ariel a continued in a near whisper, “the hol ow places that consume them. They're like a hole, an empty spot where you'd expect something to be. That creature in the rocking chair…she was almost gone. I think it was just your and Puck's glamour that brought her back, if only for a little while. ”

  Figures were starting to appear through the mist now, strange, unfamiliar creatures with the same dead eyes and empty faces. They stumbled through the town in a daze, as if sleepwalking, barely conscious of their surroundings. Sometimes they would turn to stare at us with blank eyes and detached curiosity, but none made an effort to approach.

  A booming roar broke through the muff led silence, and a scuff le ahead in the mist made me draw my sword and hurry over. The Wolf stood, teeth bared and hackles raised, over a figure with tiny hands growing everywhere from its body. The creature's arms, as well as its dozens of hands, were thrown up to protect it, and it cringed back as the Wolf bared his teeth and went for its throat.

  I lunged forward, slamming my shoulder into the Wolf 's head, knocking him aside with a furious yelp. He turned on me with a snarl, and suddenly Puck was there, daggers drawn, standing beside me. Together, we formed a wall between the Wolf and his intended victim, who scurried away on multiple hands and vanished under a building.

  The Wolf glared at us, eyes blazing, the hair on his spine standing up.

  “Move,” he growled, narrowing his eyes. “I'm going to find that thing and rip its head off. Get out of my way. ”

  “Calm down,” I ordered, keeping my blade between myself and the angry Wolf. “Attack one of them and the whole place might come after us. It's gone now, so you can't do anything about it. ”

  “I'll kill them all ,” the Wolf growled, his voice gone dangerously soft. “I'll rip every single one of them to bloody shreds. This place isn't natural.

  Can't you feel it? It's like a starving animal, clawing at us. We should kill every one of them now. ”

  “I would advise against that,” Grimalkin said, appearing from nowhere. He narrowed his eyes at the Wolf, who stared back murderously. “You would be surprised how many Forgotten exist in this world,” the cat went on. “More then you can imagine, I assure you.

  And strong emotions like anger and fear will only attract them like ants to honey. So do try to keep your teeth in your jaws without ripping someone's head off. We might actual y make it out of here. ”

  The Wolf 's baleful glare shifted between me and Grimalkin before he turned away with a snarl, snapping at the air. As he did, I saw the fur on his back and shoulders, normal y pitch-black, was streaked with gray, but then he shook himself and the color faded from sight.

  “Geez, this place is making even Wolfman twitchy,” Puck said to me in a low voice, watching the Wolf pace back and forth, growling. Beyond him, a crowd was slowly gathering, curious faces emerging from the mist, blank eyes fixed on us. “Let's find that boat and get out of here before he starts tearing down the wall s. ”

  We followed the muddy street until, at last, it reached the banks of the River of Dreams, stil shrouded in white, dark waters lapping softly against the mud. A single wooden dock stretched away until it vanished into the fog, but nothing moved out on the river or through the mists. Everything was overly quiet and stil .

  “Well, here's the dock,” Puck said, squinting as he peered through the fog. “But I don't see a boat. Maybe we have to buy a ticket?”

  “You won't find what you're looking for standing there,” said a soft voice behind us.

  I turned, slower this time, refusing to jump at every creature that popped up out of nowhere. But I stil drew my weapon, and I stil put a hand on the Wolf 's shoulder to keep him from spinning and biting the speaker's head off.

  At first, I didn't see anyone behind us. The voice appeared to have come from no one, though there was a long, lean shadow on the ground that seemed attached to nothing.

  “Show yourself,” the Wolf growled, curling back his lips. “Before I lose my temper and start tearing out your guts, invisible or not. I can smel you well enough, so you can stop hiding right now. ”

  “Oh, apologies,” said the voice again, right in front of us. “I keep forgetting…. ” And, a tal , impossibly thin figure turned out of nowhere, standing in profile so we could see him. He was nearly paper-thin, like the edge of a blade, only visible when viewed from the side. Even in profile he was stil impossibly lean and sharp, with gray skin and a striped gray bus
iness suit. His fingers, long and spiderlike, waved a greeting, making sure we could see him.

  “Better?” he asked, smiling to show thin pointed teeth in a lipless mouth. A name f lickered through my mind, keeping just out of reach, before it was gone. “I am the caretaker of this town, the mayor, if you will ,” the thin man continued, watching us from the corner of his eyes.

  “Normal y, I am here to greet newcomers and wish them a long and peaceful stay while they wait for the end. But you…” His eyes narrowed, and he tapped the ends of his fingers together. “You are not like the rest of us. Your names have not been forgotten. I am unsure how you even found this place, but it matters not.

  You do not belong here. You need to leave. ”

  “We will,” I said as the Wolf 's growls grew louder, more threatening.

  “We're just waiting for the ferry. When it comes, we'l be out of your way. ”

  The thin man tapped his fingers. “The ferry does not stop here often.

  Most citizens of Phaed are not even aware of its existence. But, every once in a blue moon, someone will grow tired of searching for something that is clearly not here. They come to the decision that what they seek is beyond Phaed, beyond the river, and they embark on a journey to find what they have lost. Only then does the ferry appear at the end of that pier. ” He pointed a long finger toward the dock that vanished into the mist. “The ferry only goes in one direction, and when it comes back around from wherever it has been, it is always empty.

  No one knows what happens to the passengers that step aboard that ship, but they never come back to Phaed. It's like they vanish off the edge of the earth. ”

  “That's fine,” I told him, ignoring the mock spooky looks Puck was giving me. “We don't plan to come back, either. When does the ferry appear?”

  The thin man shrugged. “Usual y a day or two after the decision is made to leave. If you truly wish to wait for it, I suggest you find yourself a place to stay until then. The Wayside Inn is a good choice. Just fol ow the bank until you see it. It really can't be missed. ”